Figure 9 - Air-to-Air Gunnery Tow-Line Pattern and Forced Landing Glide
We were using a quiet frequency channel on our VHF radio. I immediately called Tony to report my predicament to Chivenor tower and to tell them that I wanted to remain on the quiet channel, and also for him to come back to this channel after passing his message to the tower. I then assessed the situation (at the speed of light!) as follows. I had, I thought, only two choices - to bale out or to ditch. I immediately rejected the bale-out option for three reasons; firstly, the sea temperature was at its lowest and I would not last for long, even in a dinghy, and I didn't believe that a lifeboat from Ilfracombe could be manned and get to my splash point, ten miles away, in time to fish me out alive. In addition, if my parachute harness snagged on climbing out of the cockpit (there was no ejection seat) or if I struck any part of the cockpit, I did not believe I would survive. (A colleague had recently advised me that a strike against the tail boom was a probability during Vampire bale-out.) Finally, I felt I was too low at a height of only 1500ft to bale out manually with any degree of confidence in the outcome.
I then set up the aeroplane to achieve maximum gliding range at best lift/drag ratio which I seem to remember was at around the 180kt mark, with 21 degrees of flap selected. When Tony came back to the quiet channel (which thank goodness I had selected to on instead of switching to the emergency 121.5 megacycles channel and making a 'Mayday' call, for I did not want to be bombarded by suggestions and orders from all quarters). I advised him that I was gliding towards Ilfracombe to get as close as possible, and to ditch just outside the harbour - or better, to ditch right into the harbour if there was clearly room to do so. Tony quickly passed on that message to alert any assistance organisation at Ilfracombe. Having done all that, I made a rapid calculation that I had about three to three-and-a-half minutes to go to cover the ten miles to the coast, and with my vertical speed indicating a 400 to 450 feet per minute rate-of-descent, I might just make the harbour with a small margin to spare.
It seemed an interminably long three-and-a-half minutes but I was surprised that I felt so calm and detached in so life-threatening a situation. Don't get me wrong, I am not claiming to have nerves of steel or any such rubbish; it was just that I was surprised not to feel terrified, almost as though I had accepted any fate dished out to me.
I was also pleasantly surprised at the excellent gliding quality of the Vampire. The only operational aircraft I have flown which would out-perform the Vampire at gliding is the English Electric Canberra. As the distance between me and the coast reduced, I had to change my plan twice more. I called Tony to say that I thought I might be able to scrape in to a field on the plateau on top of the escarpment to the west of Ilfracombe, so I began to scan ahead to see if I could find one that was suitable. But just as I was about to line up, I saw through a gap in the rugged peaks of Mortehoe's ridge, the wonderful Woolacombe Beach, a two-and-a-half mile stretch of smooth sand. I jinked smoothly to starboard and made doubly sure that I had enough height to clear the lowest point in the gap. I cleared it and then thought about trying to get the wheels down. But I rejected it because I did not know whether they would lock down, or remain unlocked in an asymmetric state which would hazard the landing, or for one wheel to dig into soft sand. It was not worth it; the belly landing was the best bet. 'Put it down nice and gently on the smooth sand about ten yards above the waterline. Leave the flaps where they are, at 21 degrees and symmetrically at that, use your airbrakes only when you clear the boulders and for heaven's sake don't try to stretch your glide.' It landed beautifully.
I dismounted and checked the aircraft, which seemed to be perfectly OK, although the belly panel was probably scraped. The Woolacombe population started to gather around and a farmer came along with a tractor and a length of stout towing rope. He advised me that the tide was coming in and would reach the aircraft in about half-an-hour, so I switched on the aircraft's radio and selected the channel for Chivenor tower, advising them that I had an offer of a tow to get the aircraft above the high-water mark. I remained on the radio whilst the OC Flying and the engineering staff were consulted. They refused to give permission, although I had stressed that speed was of the essence if the aircraft was to be saved and that the deadline was in 30 minutes. It took over an hour for the recovery party to arrive, so for want of a bit of flexibility the airframe was ruined by sea water corrosion; only the engine was saved.
I was taken back to Chivenor's sick quarters, given an examination by the Medical Officer and told to go home immediately and rest for 24 hours, since the MO suspected I might be suffering from shock; I felt quite normal though. I arrived home and had lunch with my family at Croyde and an hour or so later I had a telephone call from an irate commander who wanted to know what the devil was I doing at home and that there were reports to be completed by me, so get back immediately. I let him know about the doctor's orders and asked him whose orders took priority. I heard no more. When I reported for duty on the following day, I half expected there might be some congratulations and 'well done', 'good show' etc from Flight, Squadron, Wing and/or Station Commanders. No words came, only a query from my Squadron Commander as to whether or not I would have been better to have lowered my undercarriage. I heard nothing more for some weeks, until I was summoned to see my Squadron Commander. He invited me to have a seat, then read me a letter of commendation from the Air Officer Commanding the Group. The Squadron Commander did not add his own commendation, neither did he offer to give me a copy of the letter nor the letter itself. Such was the quality of the régime there then. Later I heard that the engine run-down was caused by the failure of the drive to the fuel pump; no one informed me officially.
On 20 October 1953 my promotion to Flight Lieutenant was promulgated, but for the remainder of my tour at the OCU I became more interested in the armament side of the business as I was the only PAI on my squadron. While there, I instituted a fairer method for counting the scoring hits in air-to-air attacks, because I felt that the Central Gunnery School method was open to misuse by some pilots and unfair to those who strove to achieve hits at the more difficult higher angles off the target. It was possible to assess shooting accuracy by using the ciné-camera mounted above the gunsight of the aircraft, which viewed the target area ahead and at the same time showed sighting information from the gunsight. After the exercise, the film from the camera was processed then run through a projector on to a screen adjusted to the harmonisation point of the guns and the sightline. The film could be stopped to allow each frame to be assessed, to provide a score of the estimated number of hits achieved in each attack. In the Central Gunnery School method, the knave was the pilot who opened fire at ten degrees angle-off the target rather than the, say, thirty degrees angle-off required by the exercise; thereby he might achieve a very high score of hits, while the pilot who had striven to achieve a thirty degree angle-off might get a lower score because of the greater difficulty in aiming at the larger deflection angles. So I gave a bias to those who hit the target at the higher angles and a reduction to hits scored at the lower angles. I carried this system on to my next post at the RAF Flying College at Manby, but I am not sure that it was taken up by Fighter Command squadrons.
Apart from a collision near-miss after take-off, the remainder of my flying at Chivenor produced little excitement. The near-miss occurred when I led a group of students for a low-level battle-formation sortie. I took off and began an orbit to port, shallow enough to enable the students to join up with me easily and rapidly for the close-formation climb to operating altitude. I saw the No 2 cutting inside my orbit to close on me as briefed, but as he came closer I could see that he would be unable to decelerate in time, nor was he increasing his bank to stay close when (and if) he passed to my starboard to take up his position on that side. He simply pressed on, on a collision course with me, with no sign of an alteration in his flight path to avoid me. I had to jink upwards to let him scream past underneath. I cannot recall whether or not I had him down in red ink in the little blue book, the Form 5000 series!
Even my last act at Chivenor was not without some nastiness. My wife and I, on the morning of our departure from our RAF-rented hiring, now at Woolacombe, were packing all our possessions for carriage by Pickfords, and I had just started checking the inventory (of the chattels we had to leave behind, which were the property of the landlord) with the RAF Hirings Officer, when I saw a staff-car approach round the Woolacombe to Mortehoe road and climb the hill to the house. The activity in the house was rather chaotic and I had a lot to do quickly to give us an early start to get to the Manby area where we were to occupy another RAF hiring at Sutton-on-Sea. The Station Commander entered through the open door, without ringing the door-bell. He gave no greeting to myself or my wife, but walked round the interior examining it thoroughly. After a while he departed, not having spoken a word to us. I was aware that it might be his privilege to make such an inspection, but what a way to behave to a junior officer like me and, particlarly, to my wife. Much later, when I was serving at Manby, I heard that the RAF hiring I had been allotted at Sutton-on-Sea was owned by a former Wing Commander instructor at Manby who had telephoned the Chivenor Station Commander to ask him to find out the state of the house I was in the process of vacating, before he signed the contract to hire out the Sutton house to the RAF for my occupancy.
After all that, I was pleased to get out of the Chivenor frying pan, but there was a little bit of fire to follow at Manby.